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Thursday race preview - the final countdown 09 Oct 2003

Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) McLaren Mercedes MP4/17 finished third.
Formula One World Championship, Rd17, Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka, Japan, 13 October 2002

Welcome to the beginning of our weekend's coverage of the final race of the 2003 FIA Formula One World Championship fight, the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.

The battle for the drivers' world championship took a significant turn at the United States Grand Prix a fortnight ago, and now Michael Schumacher heads to Suzuka with a nine-point lead over his only remaining rival, Kimi Raikkonen. Schumacher has 92 points, Raikkonen 83. The mathematics are thus easy: Raikkonen needs to win, with Schumacher unplaced. It may be a tall order when you consider that the world champion has gone 37 races since his last mechanical retirement, and has only non-finished twice in those 37 due to accidents.

"We are in a great position," Schumacher said. "I really only have to finish eighth even if Kimi wins, to make sure of the championship. But you can never take anything for granted in motor racing and at Ferrari we will be pushing just as hard in Suzuka as we have all year. We still have both the drivers' and the constructors' championship to win."

Raikkonen must go all-out to win, which is how he drives anyway. "Obviously I have nothing to lose," said the Finn. "I know what I have to do and am only focused on that, not how Michael is going, and I know that the team will, do everything they can."

Martin Whitmarsh, managing director of McLaren International, said: "We are under no illusions with regard to the challenge that Kimi and the team faces, and that although he can do his part the final result still relies on where Michael finishes. It will be an interesting weekend."

There are other driver battles to be resolved, albeit at a lower level. Juan Pablo Montoya could still reclaim the runner-up slot, while the battle for fourth is still tight with Ralf Schumacher on 58 points and Rubens Barrichello and Fernando Alonso with 55 apiece.

The battle in the Constructors' Championship is also far from over. Williams lost its lead to Ferrari in Indianapolis, and the Italian team has 147 points to the Anglo-German's 144. McLaren will take third no matter what happens and Renault is equally secure in fourth, but fifth place was the subject of a major shake-up in America when Sauber's haul of 10 points (Frentzen third, Heidfeld fifth) boosted it to 19 points, ahead of BAR on 18; and Justin Wilson's hard-won point for eighth brought Jaguar level with BAR. And after what happened at Indianapolis, who would really rule out the chance of Toyota or Jordan grabbing a chunk of points?

There have been some key developments behind the scenes since Indianapolis. BAR has confirmed that Takuma Sato - the hero of last year's Japanese Grand Prix - will replace Jacques Villeneuve in 2004, so Suzuka will be the 1997 world champion's last Formula One race for the foreseeable future. Sato will be present, and you can be sure he will be the center of attention for the fans.

At Jordan, Warburg Pincus has sold its 49.9 percent share of the team to Dublin-based Stockbrokerage Merrion, as part of the team's reorganization for 2004, and in Suzuka the team will generate the same sort of popularity it enjoyed courtesy of Sato in 2002 by running Formula Nippon star Satoshi Motoyama during Friday morning's private test session. Motoyama said: "I have been dreaming of this chance for a long time. I consider this opportunity as a big step in advancing my future my future racing career." As an advantage, he knows the track intimately.

Suzuka is a huge challenge, demanding both high speed and plenty of downforce. Horsepower and low drag are crucial on the fastest sections, but there are others parts that present different demands, because Suzuka is a circuit with many facets to its character. To go smoothly through the Esses at the start of the lap, the car must have excellent handling balance, while the Spoon Curve and the super-challenging 130R corner require high downforce. The chicane at the end of the lap then creates another demand: strong braking performance and stability on the entry and excellent mechanical grip and traction on the exit. The track surface is also quite abrasive, so the choice of tyre compound is also critical.

All of this makes the circuit a great favourite of drivers and engineers alike, because everyone has to rise to the challenge to get the best from the car. The new qualifying rules will make things even tougher this year, because there are so few overtaking opportunities around the lap. And because it is so long and tortuous you can lose a lot of time to other cars if you get stuck behind a slower car that you are unable to pass.

The race will be run over 53 laps of the 5.807 km track, which has been slightly modified since last year. The 130R has been tweaked into a two-radii sweeper to provide a faster and more fluent corner with an earlier turn-in. The Casino Triangle chicane has also been revised, making it more open than before. The 2003 Japanese Grand Prix will start at 2.30 pm local time (05.30hrs GMT).